Working for impact in 2020–24

The world’s major sustainable development challenges have been articulated – quite consistently over time – in the Stockholm Declaration of 1972, the Brundtland Report of 1987, the Rio Declaration of 1992 and the 2030 Agenda of 2015. Drawing on these declarations and others, and on our key strengths as an institute and our assessment of challenges and opportunities for progress over the coming years, we have chosen to focus on three areas that are of ongoing and crucial importance where we believe we can make a significant impact. These are:

This section describes these impact areas and sets out goals for each.

The goals are organizational and apply to all research and engagement at SEI. They will define and guide our research agenda, different parts of which will be addressed by different SEI centres, and act as yardsticks for monitoring results, and evaluation and learning. At the same time, the impact areas and goals are strongly linked in that progress on one can impact on the progress of many others. We will work to identify synergies for win-win outcomes, but also remain clear-eyed and honest about difficult trade-offs.

All three impact areas represent universal challenges. However, these challenges manifest in different ways in higher and lower-income countries and regions, and all have intertwined environmental, social and economic dimensions. We recognize that gender, poverty and human rights issues are key to progress, and our dedicated Gender Equality, Social Equity, and Poverty Programme will mainstream these issues in our research (see Section 3.3).

Together, our three impact areas contribute to all of the Sustainable Development Goals. This diagram shows which of the impact areas are linked to which SDGs.
Which priorities are linked to which SDGs. This information is also represented below, under the heading for each priority area.

2.1 Reduced climate risk

Tackling climate change is critical, given the decadal timeframe available to limit warming to agreed targets. It will involve large-scale and rapid mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and decarbonizing our economies while safeguarding carbon sinks. Equally important, it involves adapting to climate impacts and managing loss and damage. Climate action is also necessary to reduce the risk of conflict and enhance human security.

Photo: ViewApart / Getty Images.

Below are our priorities for delivering a safer climate for all.

Priorities for change

1. Government plans for low-carbon pathways with multiple benefits

We will support governments in developing effective national climate plans (i.e. Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs) and work toward joined up action in the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC). We will contribute to long-term climate and energy strategies that embed the SDGs by boosting use and uptake of our Long-Range Energy Assessment and Planning (LEAP) model and building a platform for empowering integrated climate and sustainability planning. This work will include assessing and realizing local co-benefits between climate action and air quality, health, agricultural production, and forests. The Gridless Solutions Initiative will explore what role small-scale energy technologies can play, under what conditions, in an energy transition. Together with national government planners and non-state actors we will co-design research and tools for promoting policy coherence between NDCs and SDG implementation.

2. Strengthened decision making on climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction

We will develop state-of-the-art knowledge management on climate change adaptation, for example through our weADAPT platform, drawing on technological advances and cognitive science. We will build knowledge around transnational climate risk and impacts linked to global processes such as trade, investment and migration, and support planning for adaptation, including through National Adaptation Plans (NAPs). We will show how to better integrate disaster risk reduction with development, and how to pursue equitable resilience. Effective climate services will be increasingly important for making adaptation decisions. Because providers and users of climate data need to work together, we will provide guidance on how to co-design and co-develop climate services.

3. Innovation and upscaled investment for industrial transitions

To tackle climate change, it is crucial to increase the knowledge base on, and momentum for, industrial sustainable transitions in energy-intensive industries. SEI has co-designed and piloted efforts in the steel, forestry and mining sectors, and will expand this work to new sectors and countries to enable them take strategic decisions for long-term sustainable development. We will engage with the finance industry to help shift investment patterns by providing system-level independent analysis. We will deepen our partnership with the private sector on creating societal value, and work with international climate finance institutions to analyse how the generation, delivery and use of finance for investments in mitigation and adaptation can become more effective.

4. Transitions from fossil energy that address inequality, poverty and political economy

We will support governments and other actors in transitions away from fossil fuel dependence by providing evidence and convening dialogues through our Tackling Carbon Lock-In Initiative. Shifting to low-carbon pathways also involves shifting away from fossil fuels and carbon-intensive production and consumption practices. Gender equality, social equity, poverty and prosperity will be an integrated part of our research and engagement to ensure that transitions are just and sustainable. This means recognizing context-specific challenges and opportunities in low-income, higher income and emerging economies, and international political dimensions.

5. More effective international cooperation on climate change

We will support the evolution of international climate processes and institutions, such as the UNFCCC, and bring important perspectives to the table that are often otherwise missing. Progress on cooperation also depends on willingness among national governments as well as sub-national actors, businesses and civil society. So, through transparent analysis of effort-sharing we will contribute to more effective and equitable climate policy frameworks. This includes analysing the politics around climate finance and how to make financial flows more transparent, as well as the links between climate governance and international trade, and helping to monitor how climate plans, policies and programmes are implemented. Climate change is expected to multiply conflict and security risks around the world, and to address these we will analyse drivers and outcomes of geopolitical change. With an eye to the future, we will contribute to international scientific efforts on scenario-building, including IPCC scenarios, SDG interactions and low emissions development strategies.

2.2 Sustainable resource use and resilient ecosystems

Photo: Christian Aslund / EyeEm, Getty Images.

Natural resources are being consumed at faster and more unsustainable rates, and the benefits derived from them, and from biodiversity and ecosystems, are distributed unequally, within and between countries. SEI will support more sustainable resource use and resilient ecosystems through its expertise in water management, biodiversity, bioeconomy, agriculture, natural resource governance, supply chain management and waste management. Our partnerships span international organizations (e.g. UNEP, UNCTAD, IEA, FAO, and the donor community), national and regional planning authorities, and the private sector (e.g. voluntary initiatives, standardization bodies, and companies).

Priorities for change

1. Effective bioeconomy strategies in national and regional policy and planning

We will support bio-based economic development that is sustainable, and which creates jobs, improves livelihoods and helps innovative businesses. We will assess various uses of bioresources, including for food, feed, fuel, fibre and green chemicals, and how their use can be optimized and contribute to national and regional policy goals. With our Bioeconomy Pathways initiative, we aim to enable cooperation and innovation in policy on bioresources in both low and high-income countries, for example in terms of resource use across borders, and better management of residues through circular models of use and reuse. The work will be informed by poverty, gender, rights-based and sustainability perspectives, to appreciate challenges and opportunities at both local and global scales.

2. Water resource management that is ecosystem-based and holistic

We will aim to apply a holistic long-term perspective among water management authorities, building on SEI’s Water Evaluation and Planning System and Water Beyond Boundaries initiative. We will address water pollution, water efficiency, biodiversity, and inequalities among water users and stakeholders, and assess how these factors affect how water is allocated in river basins. We will support local government in framing new policies and incentives, such as public procurement policies, that stimulate sustainable use of water. Our regional networks, such as SUMERNET, will continue to provide insights on biodiversity mainstreaming, climate variation, sustainable resource use, and community-led ecosystem management for water resource planners.

3. Commodity sourcing strategies and standards that address deforestation and biodiversity

Our Trase platform is a tool that comprehensively maps supply chains for key commodities from entire countries and regions, and the data is provided at scale. Adding new commodities and regions to Trase will provide further knowledge and transparency on agricultural commodity supply chains from source regions associated with deforestation and biodiversity risk. Using insights from Trase and other supply chain analysis techniques (e.g. the SEI IOTA multi-regional input-output modelling framework) we will support decision-makers in policy and business across supply chains – and the broader economies and systems to which they are linked – to make decisions that can help reverse negative trends, for example by adjusting sourcing, consumption levels and environmental standards in pre-competitive and public-private collaborations. Our work will contribute to delivering the Aichi Biodiversity Targets in key jurisdictions and form a major component of international research activity in the UK Research and Innovation Global Challenges Research Fund (UKRI GCRF) Trade, Development and the Environment Hub.

4. More productive, resilient and sustainable practices in the agricultural sector

We will work towards more sustainable and prosperous agricultural and food systems, for example through analysis of agricultural livelihoods and using behavioural science to design effective interventions for rural development and more equitable and sustainable agri-food products, taking into account climate change as well as biodiversity. To support climate resilience in agriculture, we will draw on our work on climate services and water resource management. We will further develop our niche as a knowledge broker and connect more strongly to key decision-makers, for example through the Swedish International Agricultural Network Initiative (SIANI).

5. More effective governance of the ocean

The ocean has not had its own substantial research programme in the past at SEI. But because of the critical role oceans play in sustainability, we plan to expand our contribution in this area. Our aim is to build on our experience in international environmental governance to help resolve the mounting challenges in the ocean and the marine environment – in particular, pollution from chemicals, nutrients and plastics; blue economic development for coastal ecosystems and livelihoods; and climate-induced disaster risk. We will assess and support solutions for mitigating challenges, and engage with international policy as well as transferring knowledge, expertise and policy lessons among the regional seas and coastal areas where SEI has a presence, such as the Baltic Sea and South China Sea.

6. Resource rights given greater priority in government and private-sector decision-making

We will work to strengthen resource rights across regions and provide evidence on this issue for use in government decision-making and corporate sustainability reporting. Unequal access to land and resources is aggravated when resource rights are missing, unclear, or violated, and we will build on our long-standing engagement with, for example, Sámi communities, Arctic communities, and communities in Southeast Asia. A key issue in resource rights is addressing socially determined differences in rights within communities, such as gender and social status.

2.3 Improved health and well-being

Photo: Petri Oeschger / Getty Images.

The connection between environmental change and health has long been established, with known links, for example, between air pollution and respiratory disease, and poor sanitation and waterborne disease. But newer research suggests much deeper and more complex impacts, including on maternal health and neuropsychiatric health. As global warming and change accelerates, impacts are expected to intensify or bring about new challenges. At the same time, the strong connections between health and other priorities in the 2030 Agenda offer opportunities for policy coherence.

We also focus on the links between environment and well-being, taking in mental health and stress, safety, life satisfaction and happiness. While our research in this area has in the past focused on high-income country contexts, we are expanding our focus to well-being in low- and middle-income countries, including in rapidly growing cities.

Priorities for change

1. Enhanced air quality strategies in low- and middle-income countries

We will support solutions to air pollution from the city to the regional scale, and work closely with the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to develop evidence and tools for governments to implement strategies that can at the same time mitigate climate change and reduce air pollution, including through the LEAP-IBC tool. We will develop effective and participatory approaches to monitoring urban air quality, building on citizen science methods. There are many technical, financial, political and social barriers to expanding access to reliable, modern energy, and we aim to help governments and development partners to overcome these. We will also use behavioural methods and service design to increase uptake of clean technologies and practices, with a focus on sanitation and indoor air pollution.

2. Sanitation solutions that are sustainable, healthy and productive are widely scaled up

We will work to better understand the connections between inadequate access to WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) services and environmental health risks, such as poor management of solid waste. We will develop tools which evaluate the potential to recover resources from urban waste streams and promote frameworks for combined hygiene and better health, reuse of resources in sanitation waste, and protection of water resources. Our Gridless Solutions Initiative will analyse the potential of on-site sanitation solutions. Work on poverty, gender and inequality in sanitation will be central, including through the Empowerment in WASH Index, for measuring outcomes.

3. City planning that improves well-being and environmental health

Our research will provide knowledge on how to increase well-being and reduce stress in cities, particularly in deprived areas, and how healthy environments support better outcomes for people. The City Health and Well-being Initiative will work in higher and lower-income countries on environmental health issues connected to city planning, including mobility and transport, green space, and nature-based solutions. We will produce evidence that can help improve management of urban systems linked to business, infrastructure and healthcare. A suite of mixed methods and tools, including creative engagement, participatory environmental monitoring, co-designed citizen science and links to urban modelling, will enable greater inclusion of communities in urban planning, helping planners to better understand the implications of their decision-making for the environment and social justice.

4. Safer, more effective waste management and circular systems

We will carry out environmental and economic assessments of waste management systems and help develop and evaluate regulatory and economic instruments for better waste management. Our existing collaborations with, for example, the food and textile industries, as well as the public sector, will be built on to develop new approaches towards circular systems and resource recovery. We will explore novel methods for increasing awareness about waste and for changing people’s behaviour toward reducing it.

5. Health and well-being integrated into planning for disasters, migration and displacement

Our research will recognize individual and societal responses to more frequent quick-onset climate-induced disasters as well as slow-onset environmental change. We will examine consequences of disasters for particularly vulnerable groups, such as disabled people, and inform humanitarian response strategies through new research on the social, cultural and environmental dimensions of forced displacement.

6. Shifts to more sustainable lifestyles and consumption

We will develop knowledge about consumption patterns that can be used to encourage a shift towards more sustainable lifestyles and behaviours among consumers and local and national governments. Using different tools, we will measure the relationship between consumption and climate emissions and resource use, grounded in scientific work on input-output analysis. Assessment of the role of trade in driving environmental and social change at national scales will be a priority, and we will work with governments, business and civil society to develop projects and policies for sustainable lifestyles, in particular by drawing on international networks convened under the 10YFP and the Good Life Goals.